Over the past few years, consumers have been bombarded with information about the health benefits of coconut oil.
It can slow the aging process.
It can help your heart and thyroid.
It can protect you from illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and diabetes.
It can even help you lose weight!
Bah humbug, says Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver.
He says coconut oil is not just another fad that comes and goes, it’s also dangerous.
“There’s very little data showing health benefits,” Freeman told Healthline. “It’s not in one’s best interest.”
Adding fat to your meals
There’s no question that coconut oil is popular.
Freeman, who is co-chair of the American College of Cardiology’s lifestyle and nutrition group, notes it’s possible to buy the oil by the tub at Costco.
However, Freeman says, coconut oil is high in fat, so it’s about the worst thing to add to a typical American diet already rich in processed meat and cheese.
Lauren Blake, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, says some of her clients love coconut oil and think it has healing properties.
“I always advise them to be careful,” she told Healthline. “I don’t recommend one specific type of oil. I suggest they switch them around. Include olive oil or avocado oil.”
She noted that Today’s Dietitian magazine investigated some of claims attributed to coconut oil.
“While there's a possibility that MCFAs [medium-chain fatty acids] may behave differently in the body than longer-chain saturated fats, there's no direct evidence that coconut oil increases insulin sensitivity or can be helpful in the prevention or treatment of diabetes in humans. The American Diabetes Association considers coconut oil a saturated fat to be limited,” the magazine reported.
Can it really clean teeth?
The Wall Street Journal reported last spring that coconut oil prices had risen nearly 20 percent in a month, largely due to the growing popularity of specialty products such as coconut water. Coconut water is being marketed as a replacement for sports drinks like Gatorade.
The result is a shake-up in supply chains from farms to store shelves.
In some supermarkets, coconuts are being sold with pull tabs to be drunk like beer.
Among the celebrities touting the benefits of coconut oil is actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who has said it whitens teeth and improves the complexion.
The Daily Mail in England consulted a dentist about claims for assorted alternative methods of cleaning teeth, including the following:
A 3,000-year-old Ayurvedic way to clean teeth is to swish a tablespoon of oil (usually coconut, sesame, or olive oil) around your mouth for 20 minutes every morning. The coconut oil is said to stick to the oil in the cell membranes of any bacteria in your mouth, so when you spit it out, you are ridding your mouth of unwanted microorganisms.
Turns out there is no scientific evidence at all that “oil pulling,” as it’s called, will remove bacteria or whiten teeth.
The science of saturated fats
True believers, however, say there’s science to back up their claims.
Coconut oil is made by pressing the fat from the white “meat” inside the giant nut. About 84 percent of its calories come from saturated fat. Compare that to 14 percent of olive oil’s calories from saturated fat, and 63 percent of butter.
“This explains why, like butter and lard, coconut oil is solid at room temperature with a long shelf life and the ability to withstand high cooking temperatures,” says registered dietitian Lisa Young, Ph.D.
Despite the fact that coconut oil is high in saturated fats, it’s made up mostly of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which some say the body handles differently than other fats.
MCFAs, which always are saturated, are defined as having six to 12 carbons. Long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) have more than 12 carbons and can be saturated or unsaturated.
The two behave differently in the body. Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and MCFAs are more easily absorbed than LCFAs because they're more water soluble.
“When I was in school, coconut oil was big no-no because it was a saturated fat,” Blake recalled.
Now it’s popular again, although most professionals in the field don’t think much of it.
Fans of coconut oil point to studies that suggest the MCT saturated fat in coconut could boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol. This, they claim, makes it not as bad for heart health than the saturated fat in foods like cheese and steak or products containing trans fats.
But it also raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
“But just because coconut oil can raise HDL cholesterol doesn't mean that it’s great for your heart,” Young said. “It’s not known if the rise in beneficial cholesterol outweighs any rise in harmful cholesterol.”
That’s Freeman’s point.
He says there is no proof coconut oil does anything other than clog arteries.
He points to the guidelines from the American Heart Association, which recommend saturated fat be limited to no more than 13 grams a day. That’s the amount found in about one tablespoon of coconut oil.
“It’s not a recommended oil by any of the guidelines that I know of. In general, it can contribute to cardiovascular disease risk because of its very high saturated fat content,” Freeman said.